Carnegie Mellon University
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Ownership Polarization: Self-Reference as an Alternate Account of the Endowment Effect

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posted on 2020-07-20, 21:01 authored by Colleen GiblinColleen Giblin
The endowment effect is the tendency for people who own a good to value it more than people who do not. This phenomenon has recently been attributed to different cognitive frames determining the subset of information accessible at the time an object is evaluated. Ownership
appears to be an especially potent frame—merely owning a good is sufficient to boost object evaluations, even in the absence of any threat of loss. Self-enhancement theories of ownership suggest that this effect is due to implicit self-esteem creating an additional positive self association
with owned objects. However, many of these findings are also consistent with an alternate account of ownership based on self-referential effects in memory—associating a
stimulus with the self generally results in increased attention and better memory encoding. In this dissertation, I develop novel predictions that differentiate these competing accounts of ownership effects, arguing that consideration of the self-concept as a cognitive structure affecting information processing (i.e., enhancing attention and memory for self-related stimuli) can explain why ownership might serve as an especially potent cognitive frame sufficient to produce an endowment effect due to mere ownership. Because most goods have predominantly positive features, increased salience of those features due to ownership should
increase the weighting of those positive features, biasing object evaluations and increasing perceived value. For objects with predominantly negative features, increased salience of those features due to ownership should increase the weighting of those negative features, biasing object evaluations and decreasing perceived value. The contribution of my present theory is to explain why mere ownership would cause this chain of events. Furthermore, the present-self reference account can explain a previously puzzling finding that standard self-enhancement
based theories of ownership would not predict—the reversal of the endowment effect for “bads,” objects with predominantly negative attributes. I report the results of a first study demonstrating the reversal of the endowment effect for such “bads” in a mere ownership paradigm, consistent with the present self-reference theory
(Study 1). I replicate and extend this effect (Studies 2A & 2B), then develop a series of empirical tests pitting the predictions of the present self-reference theory against extant self-enhancement theory. The additional studies examine novel moderators derived from a self-reference
perspective, such as individual differences in general self-referential memory advantage (Study 3), salient self-schema related to cultural primes (Study 4), private self- consciousness (Studies 5A & 5B), and features of the good that affect how readily it is connected in memory to salient
identities (Study 6). I test the proposed mechanism via an aspect-listing task in order to examine the role of information processing in producing such ownership polarization effects (Study 7). Although I observe an ownership polarization effect consistent with my hypotheses in the first three studies (Studies 1, 2A, & 2B), this effect did not consistently emerge in later studies attempting to examine the above-described moderators. In particular, there were no observed
effects of ownership in Study 3 or Study 4. Results consistent with a standard endowment effect for goods were, however, observed in Study 2A, Study 2B, Study 5A, and Study 6. For the remaining studies, more nuanced patterns emerged, implicating private self-consciousness
primes in Study 5B, and the valence of listed thoughts recorded in Study 7. I explain this evidence in more detail, and conclude my dissertation with an analysis characterizing the situations where effects of ownership did or did not appear to reliably emerge. For bads, I observe a reversal of the endowment effect (i.e., evidence of ownership polarization) in Studies 1, 2A, and 2B. I observe no significant effects of ownership in Study 3, 4, and the follow-up replication attempt. I observe effects of ownership (or related interactions) for bads that support a competing theory, self-enhancement, in Studies 5A, 5B, and 6. I observe one interaction for the information processing mechanism that is consistent with the current theory (Study 7), whereas there were no significant effects of ownership for other aspects of the proposed mechanism in that same study. Overall, the results indicate that there may be some heretofore unidentified boundary condition determining whether bads are subject to ownership polarization or a standard endowment effect. The present series of investigations were designed in order to thoroughly test
my key hypotheses identified at the dissertation proposal stage. As a result, these studies were not designed to speak directly to such possible boundary conditions, thus some speculation is necessary to make sense of the mixed results. Nevertheless, I endeavor to report the results of my
proposed line of inquiry thoroughly and accurately, in line with current best-practices, elucidating what the results may mean to the fullest extent scientifically possible. Upon observing mixed results and reflecting in a General Discussion, a Resolution Study was conducted to address open issues. Specifically, in a preregistered design, I successfully replicated the mere ownership effect for goods, and then extended the paradigm to bads, all within an imagined ownership paradigm. This Resolution Study will be reported at the end of the dissertation, and finally, incorporated into an overall conclusion. Overall, the results of the Resolution Study help clarify the conditions under which mere ownership effects reliably replicate.




Degree Type

  • Dissertation


  • Tepper School of Business

Degree Name

  • Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)


Carey Morewedge

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